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Relax! Your Baby Will Thank You!

Part 2 of a 2-part series.

Effects of Traumatic Events continued...

Yet another study published in the journal Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics in 2003 found that anxiety-related increases in the mother's heart rate had a direct impact on the fetal heart rate. More specifically, researchers from Columbia University linked changes in fetal heart rate to the mother's cardiovascular activity after experiencing psychological stress as well as anxiety. This, they say, indicates that emotional ups and downs may affect the baby's biology and could hold a key to fetal development. Still, many doctors say this is not quite enough evidence to draw a clear correlation for all women.

"These studies can be difficult to interpret because too many factors can influence the outcome. Right now it's an association we need to pay attention to, but not a cause," says Bruce Young, MD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Medical Center in New York City.

High-risk pregnancy expert Andrei Rebarber, MD, agrees. "It's an interesting phenomenon, but admittedly, we don't have great markers from what we know thus far," says Rebarber, an associate professor at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

That said, when stress does a play a role, Rebarber believes it's most likely long-term chronic anxiety and tension that is of most concern.

"The basic idea here is that the maternal response to chronic stress compromises various hormones during pregnancy, including causing higher levels of CRH [corticotropin releasing hormone], in conjunction with cortisol and other stress hormones, to cross the placenta," says Rebarber.

It is this cascade of events, he says, that appears to affect premature labor and birth, possibly affecting the growth rate of the baby.

Pregnancy and Acute Stress: Important Links

While most experts agree that any truly detrimental effects of stress are likely to be the result of long-term or chronic stress, what about those life-changing events that happen suddenly?

Hobel says it's not something most women have to worry about.

"No matter how severe, if it's just one episode, most women can handle it, particularly if they have a good support system, with family members, spouses, and friends helping them through the trying event," says Hobel.

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